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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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How To Create a Sustainable Entrepreneurial Community

Last week I posted an article on peHUB titled How to Create a Sustainable Entrepreneurial Community.  Here it is in its entirety.

I’ve lived in Boulder for 15 years after living in Boston for a dozen. While I’ve spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley — both as an angel and venture capital investor — I’ve never lived there. While the firm I’m a partner in — Foundry Group — invests all over the United States, I regularly hear statements like, “The only place to start a tech company is in Silicon Valley.”

When David Cohen (CEO of TechStars) and I co-founded TechStars in Boulder, Colo., in 2006, we had two goals in mind. The first was to energize the early stage software/Internet entrepreneurial community in Boulder. The second was to get new first-time entrepreneurs involved more deeply in the Boulder entrepreneurial community. Four years later, we feel like we really understand how entrepreneurial communities grow and evolve.

First is the recognition that Silicon Valley is a special place. It’s futile to try to be the next Silicon Valley. Instead, recognize that Silicon Valley has strengths and weaknesses. Learn from the strengths and incorporate the ones that fit with your community while trying to avoid the weaknesses. Leverage the natural resources of your community and be the best, unique entrepreneurial community that you can be. Basically, play to your strengths.

Next, get ready for a 20-year journey. Most entrepreneurial communities ramp up over a three- to five-year period and then stall or collapse, with the early leaders getting bored, moving away, getting rich and changing their priorities, or just disengaging. It takes a core group of leaders — at least half a dozen — to commit to provide leadership over at least 20 years.

But these two things — playing to the strengths of your community and going on a 20-year journey — are table stakes. Without them, you won’t get anywhere, but you need more. In Boulder, we’ve figured out two critical things for creating a sustainable entrepreneurial community.

First, do things that engage the entire entrepreneurial community. Over the years I’ve been to many annual entrepreneurial award events and I’ve gone to endless cocktail parties for entrepreneurs. These are nice, but they get boring quickly. More importantly, these types of events don’t actually engage anyone in anything functional — you end up seeing the same old people and saying the same things to each other.

You need to take the next step and create real events that have entrepreneurs work together on a regular basis. Meetups and Open Coffee Club type events that occur on a regular basis are a great start. Hackathons, Startup Weekend, and Open Angel Forum events are the next level. Events at the local university, such as CU Boulder’s Silicon Flatirons programs, including Entrepreneurs Unplugged and Entrepreneurial Roundtables, involve the entrepreneurial community with students who are the future entrepreneurs in the community. And programs like TechStars — which engage the entire entrepreneurial community for 90 days a year — are the icing on the cake.

Next, you have to continually get fresh blood into the entrepreneurial ecosystem. It has to be easy for a new entrepreneur to emerge in your community and get connected with the experienced entrepreneurs and investors. If someone moves to your community, it has to be easy for him or her to engage. Experienced entrepreneurs and investors should want to work with new entrepreneurs and new entrepreneurs should have their minds blown when they move from their otherwise dull and disengaged community to your exciting, welcoming and engaging community.

We are in the midst of an entrepreneurial revival across the United States (and the world) right now. Hopefully we’ll learn from the past cycles and do things to keep things going this time around so that in 2025 there are numerous strong entrepreneurial communities throughout the United States. My partners and I at Foundry Group look forward to helping nurture many of these communities with investments and our engagement over the next 15 years.

  • http://twitter.com/stevenklein @stevenklein

    Something you said that really resonated with me is "new entrepreneurs should have their minds blown when they move from their otherwise dull and disengaged community". I was out in Boulder before the most recent TechStars session for TechStars For a Day and can't even describe how it impacted me. Just being in that community that seemed so passionate about entrepreneurship and were so inviting and willing to help new people has me seriously considering moving out to Boulder at some point. There's more probably more available talent/money in the Valley but the Boulder community (in my little experience) makes Boulder a significantly more attractive place.

  • http://twitter.com/howardlindzon @howardlindzon

    you are the community mentor and i thank you.

  • http://www.exponentialimprovement.com/ Bob Powell

    "in the midst of an entrepreneurial revival across the United States"??? Evidence?

    The Advanced Technology Products trade deficit is $56.6B/yr projected based on the Jan – May data. In 1991, the U.S. had a $38.4B ATP surplus. The loss of high-tech jobs and intellectual capital has been enormous and continues despite the economic downturn. Google "Jobs & 'Trade' Data Update Jun10" to see the graphs.

    • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

      Government statistics on this stuff lag dramatically so I don't think any of them will be useful. All you need to do is travel around the US and talk to people – the number of new tech startups throughout the US is staggering.

  • http://twitter.com/addoway @addoway

    Great post. Thank you. The State of Arizona needs some help in this department and because of its lack of resources we are relocating to San Fran in the near future.

    Any thoughts for us down here?

  • http://www.olinhyde.com Olin Hyde

    Great advice but I think you missed the opportunity to make a grander social statement. We are in the midst of a massive restructuring of the economy. Entrepreneurialism is the ONLY way the USA will climb out of the mess created by big deficits from a big government run by big political parties getting funding from big corporations to get big bailouts when they fail from having small thoughts.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000555773073 Vittorio O Studente

      well said man!
      I wonder why they still claim to be in a free market economy!

  • Willis

    We in KC are looking to you guys for advice and these blog posts. Keep up the commentary, we need all of the help we can get.

  • SBM

    Brad, this line indirectly hits something I've been thinking about lately –

    "Experienced entrepreneurs and investors should want to work with new entrepreneurs and new entrepreneurs should have their minds blown when they move from their otherwise dull and disengaged community to your exciting, welcoming and engaging community."

    Isn't the same true for experienced investors wanting to work with new investors…I totally understand that Foundry Group doesn't want to add to their partnership and don't want to build a big Associate model where you have a bunch of Associates running around meeting with Companies and diluting your brand.

    However, for the Boulder community don't you think it would be better to have some sort of 2-3 year associate program – as the entrepreneur community continues to grow, the area is going to need to continue to need more good investors in and I can't think of better way of improving local investors than some young guys with startup experience and a couple years working under you and your partners. Similiar to what Union Square and GRP has done.

    • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

      Yes, although I'm not sure training associates necessarily does this. There's a long path from associate to partner in most VC contexts and many of the folks that work for other firms as associates end back up in the entrepreneurial pool as their next step on their career path.

      That said, it would be great to have more awesome VCs in Boulder, although we've got numerous ones participating that are not Boulder-based these days and they've been hugely impactful on the local tech scene.

      • SBM

        Yeah, I think you're right – I've just been thinking a lot about to create a better group of VCs in an area.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1024065658 Jerry Newman

    Brad, David and the Foundry Team are the best thing to hit Boulder since the Flatirons!

  • http://www.springboardenterprises.org Amy millman

    Same thing happened in DC and it's time to follow your lead Brad. Come to DC and inspire us.

  • http://twitter.com/slobotski @slobotski

    Thanks for this great, and thorough, post Brad – a lot of folks are benefiting from you telling it how it is, and what you've done to build the Boulder community.

    Keep up the great work, and we continually look to Boulder for direction and guidance along the lines of what we're building here.

  • Akaiser

    very informative….we’re (www.thekaizencompany.com) working to develop communities of different professional peers (entrepreneurs, companies in specific sectors, etc. on USAID projects around the world. your note on taking the next step and having people work on real topics is well taken. Thanks. Andrew

  • Akaiser

    very informative….we’re (www.thekaizencompany.com) working to develop communities of different professional peers (entrepreneurs, companies in specific sectors, etc. on USAID projects around the world. your note on taking the next step and having people work on real topics is well taken. Thanks. Andrew

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